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Is South America in an arms race?

Major arms purchases stoke fears of flaring regional tensions on an increasingly militarized continent.

An army helicopter flies over a bombarded area in Cano Cabra, Colombia, July 25, 2009. (Fredy Builes/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Concerns over a possible arms race on the South American continent have turned the spotlight on who’s buying what and why.

Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia in particular appear determined to prove they won't be pushed around by their neighbors and are vigorously defending their military buildup.

There is no question that South America is on arms spree, with major purchases by Venezuela and Brazil stoking fears over the possible consequences of flaring regional tensions on an increasingly militarized continent.

South American countries increased military spending by 30 percent from 2007 to total of more than $51 billion in 2008, according to Nueva Mayoria, a Buenos Aires-based center for sociopolitical studies.

Venezuela's oil revenues, Colombia's millions of dollars in annual military aid and Brazil's commodities exports are helping finance their military ambitions.

With Venezuela looking to Russia as its main supplier, while neighboring Colombia turns to the United States, the set-up harks back to the Cold War era with the two world powers competing for influence in these proxy states.

Between 2004 and 2007, Colombia, Chile and Brazil spent the most among South American countries on military weapons and equipment from the United States. According to Nueva Mayoria’s studies, Colombia was America’s top client on the continent, putting down $894 million in purchases. Venezuela bought $101 million worth of military acquisitions from the U.S. during the same period. In recent years, Venezuela has bought more than $4 billion in weapons from Russia, including fighter jets, helicopters and rifles. Earlier this month, Brazil announced it would purchase 36 fighter jets estimated at more than $2 billion. A separate, $11 billion agreement will put submarines, one of them nuclear-powered, in Brazilian waters.

Brazil spends the most money on defense of any country in South America — just under $25 billion in 2008, and 1.5 percent of its GDP, according to Jane’s Information Group, which provides analysis on the defense community.

Brazil has said that its arms purchases are needed to replace outdated equipment and to protect its borders and oil reserves. "But there is also an interest from Brazil to show itself as a regional power with military power and to raise it’s profile in the region,” said Mauricio Angel, senior analyst at the Bogota office of the International Crisis Group.

Also this month, Russia lent Bolivia $1 billion line of credit for the purchase of a presidential plane and military equipment. Earlier this summer, Chile bought fighter jets and Colombia struck a $1.5 billion deal for Israeli jets. (Colombia has received more than $6 billion in aid, mostly military, from the U.S. since 1999 — more than any other country in the region.)

"What is worrisome is not so much the purchases of arms, but who is buying and for what purposes," said Roman Ortiz, a security and defense expert with the consultancy Grupo Triarius in Bogota. Naming the elephant in the room, Ortiz said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “ideological expansionist project” could imply offensive intentions.